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Health, Beauty & Fashion

Nailing that passion

Nail artist Catherine Wong (right) calls herself the "Nail Queen" and, with her elaborate acrylic and gel nails that are at least four inches long, her talons do resemble those of the Empress Dowager Cixi.
Asia One - March 13, 2013
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Nailing that passion

But unlike the Dowager, who presumably barely had to lift a finger, Ms Wong can deftly paint beautiful butterflies and scaly 3-D snakeskin patterns on this reporter's nails with gel polish for Urban's cover shoot.

Not surprisingly, she is often stopped on the streets by strangers who want to find out more about her nails, or just to admire them.

"The one thing that they always ask is, 'How can you do anything with those nails on?'" says the 41-year-old.

"I can do almost everything in these nails, such as cooking and putting on and taking off my contact lenses." The one thing she cannot do with those talons?

"Pulling the card out from ATMs. So I always have a pair of tweezers with me to help me do that."

The mother of two teenagers wears her elaborate nails for about two weeks every month.

"I put on the fancy nails whenever I am at a beauty exhibition or conducting a workshop because they are loud, attract attention and I get to showcase my work," says Ms Wong, the managing director of Ecsalonce (derived from the words "excellence" and "salon"), an academy for professional nail artists that also distributes professional nail products.

Ecsalonce was one of about 150 exhibitors at this year's BeautyAsia. The annual trade show for beauty industry players, now in its 17th year, took place at the Sands Expo and Convention Center earlier this week. It offers insiders access to the latest products and a preview of upcoming trends.

"Nail Queen", Ms Wong explains, was a monicker she adopted when she joined an online nail forum in the 1990s. The name stuck - and turned out to be an apt one - when she went on to win international nail art competitions and gain recognition for her intricate designs.

"It has become part of my branding strategy."

A former marketing general manager of a timber company, she was first drawn to nail art in 1994, when she visited a NailPro Show.

The prestigious international nail art competition is held in the United States. She attended the workshops, watched nail art demonstrations at the show and was fascinated.

"I realised then that one could do so much with one's nails," she says.

However, when she asked nail technicians here for elaborate floral embellishments, she was told they were created only for photoshoots and were not what one could get in salons.

"At that time, the nail salons here could never do anything more than a regular polish manicure and sticking on a nail acrylic tip," Ms Wong recalls.

So she spent her holidays in countries such as Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and the United States to visit nail art exhibitions and attend workshops.

"I think it's fascinating to be able to create art on a tiny canvas," she says of her passion for fancy manicures.

By the time she decided to quit her day job and start Ecsalonce in 2002, Ms Wong had invested about $15,000 in upgrading her skills. Since then, she has chalked up an impressive list of accomplishments.

Ms Wong has published seven instructional and coffee table nail art books that showcase techniques she has developed.

Specialising in building elaborate nail sculptures from scratch, she holds more than 15 first-place titles in international nail art competitions. These include the NailPro International Beauty Show held in Las Vegas and the NailPro Premiere in Orlando.

She estimates that she has trained more than 1,000 nail artists from places such as Germany, Holland, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States.

Despite her success, she says she has trouble explaining what she does for a living to her friends.

"Some ask if I am a manicurist who clean people's hands and feet."

Even her husband does not understand her obsession with nail art, although he remains supportive, says Ms Wong.

"He does not understand why I have to travel so much to hold workshops and attend exhibitions. He thinks I travel more often than the CEO of an MNC," she says with a laugh. She travels at least once a month for up to two weeks each time for work.

Now, she is moving on to the next phase of her business: developing nail products with a professional nail art brand, Odyssey, from the United States.

The result of the collaboration - and a current must-have item in her tool box - is gel paint that lets nail artists paint on gel nails with a watercolour or oil painting effect (top), which Ms Wong claims is a first. Still, teaching others the art of nail embellishment remains her first love.

"I'm most fulfilled when I see my students succeed in their careers," she says. "I believe nail artists should not be selfish about sharing their skills and techniques because their careers can last only if the industry flourishes as a whole."

Signs of a good manicure

This is what nail artist and trainer Catherine Wong looks out for when she is a judge at nail art competitions: The cuticle area is clean and free of dead skin. If it is red and swollen, it means the technician has cut off too much of the cuticle.

There should also be a thin and clean line - not a jagged one - between the nail polish and the cuticle.

The top coat and the nail colour should meld into one seamless layer and not look like two distinct layers.

To tell if the nail colour is applied evenly, bring your fingers up to the light and look under the nails. If you see streaks, it means the polish was not applied evenly. If your nails are short, put them under a bright light. The reflection on the nail polish should be even and not bumpy.

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